Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Skill I Really Admire

One of the side effects of my infatuation with the Avett Brothers is a growing appreciation for good songwriting. The other day on my way to work, I heard the song "Vincent" by Don Mclean (yes, I DO listen to something other than the Avetts, ha ha!), and I was struck by how beautiful the lyrics for the song are.
Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand
These lines with their visual imagery evoke Van Gogh's paintings so vividly. I especially like that last pair of lines ("Weathered faces....soothed beneath the artist's loving hand"). I know faces like that.

What I really appreciate about the lyrics is how efficient they are. In less than 70 words, Mclean not only provides a quick trip through a gallery of Van Gogh's work, but also captures a sense of the loneliness and intensity that characterized the artist and eventually led him to suicide. Not a word is wasted. As a person who can't seem to write anything except long-form stories, I'm simply in awe of this kind of writing.

There's another song I greatly admire that I've been meaning to talk about in a blog post, and that is Tom T. Hall's "Little Lady Preacher." While Mclean's song is poetic and impressionistic, I've always thought Hall's song is a wonderful story in miniature.

Oh, the little lady preacher from the limestone church
I'll never forget her, I guess
She preached each Sunday mornin’ on the local radio
With a big black Bible and a snow-white dress

She was 19 years of age and was developed to a fault
But I will admit she knew the Bible well
A little white lace hanky marked the text that she would use
She’d breathe into that microphone and send us all to hell

I love the way Hall chooses the details that not only allow us to picture the little lady preacher physically but that also create her as a living character in this morality tale. Hall actually creates three distinct characters: the little lady preacher, the narrator of the song, and Luther Short, a "hairy-legged soul lost out in sin" who gets the privilege of taking the lady preacher home after each radio session. Besides having three well-developed characters, the song also has a plot with rising action and a climax. 

I can see me standing in the studio that day
I had to face the heartbreak, unemployment and all

In 32 lines (that rhyme!), Hall brings to life a story that is funny, yet sympathetic and says something about human nature and life.

That's just looking at the lyrics. Add in the element of melody, and I'm really impressed by the skill it takes to produce something that seems so effortless.

It seems only right to close this post with a chance to appreciate the whole package, for both songs.

 Don Mclean - "Vincent" 

"Little Lady Preacher" - Tom T. Hall

Saturday, February 8, 2014

It's Complicated

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the position of Native Americans in US history. One reason is because I'm reading On the Rez by Ian Frazier, which is mostly about Frazier's experiences with a friend, Le War Lance, an Oglala Sioux. Another is because I'm involved in a serious editing read-through of my second novel, which has the struggle between whites and the Cherokees over land as a major plot point. I'm also outlining a third novel that includes the famous Trail of Tears. As I'm reading both books and pondering the third, I find myself struggling with exactly how I should portray the Indians as I write.

On the one hand, there is the tendency to make the Indians the noble victims of history, overrun by greedy white settlers who snatched up the best land and pushed the Indians onto pockets of the least desirable land. Certainly, there's plenty of evidence to support that view. All the history around which I've built my second book supplies examples of treaties made and then renegotiated and then renegotiated again, always to the benefit of the white settlers. I haven't finished Frazier's book yet, but I read a section the other night filled with depressing statistics. For example,

  • Forty percent of Indian homes are overcrowded or have inadequate space, compared to six percent among the general population.
  • Indians are twice as likely to be murdered, and the suicide rate among Indians is high.
  • Indians are four times more likely than the national average to die from alcoholism, and fetal alcohol syndrome is 33 times higher among Indians than among whites.
How much of that misfortune comes from being people whose culture was uprooted and transformed by hostile action by American soldiers on behalf of my ancestors and people like them? While doing the research for my novels, I'm ashamed of how Cherokee leaders were held in Washington, DC as virtual hostages until they agreed to give up their land in Arkansas. I just recently read shocking accounts of how the Choctaw suffered cold and starvation in Arkansas Post during the first wave of removal from Mississippi. Just as with slavery, the US treatment of Native Americans is a giant, guilt-producing scar on our national countenance.

Yet, as I'm reading Frazier's book, I am annoyed at the self-destructive and irresponsible behavior of Le War Lance, behavior that is apparently not uncommon on the reservation where he lives. The Indians routinely drive while drunk. I'm not even halfway through the book, and I've already read about two or three people who were killed while walking along the highway because they were hit by drunk drivers. This is a silly thing, but it really bothered me that Le planned to use a propane-fueled oven both as a cookstove and as a heater for his house. Everyone knows you don't do that! As for the statistic above about fetal alcohol syndrome, the link between drinking while pregnant and FAS is undisputed, yet pregnant Indian women are still drinking at a rate that makes their babies 33 percent more likely to have FAS. (Sorry if I'm misusing that statistic, but you get my point.) These are behaviors that are not noble, based on personal choices made now, not in the nineteenth century. Le War Lance seems to almost relish the danger he puts himself in, and to treat that attitude as a commonplace among Indians.

That's where things become complicated, especially for a writer. I want to be fair to my Cherokee characters (and to the Choctaw ones of the future). How do I navigate that line between showing the truth of the ways the Indians were mistreated and yet avoid the temptation to turn the Indians into "noble victims"? I get the sense from reading Frazier's book that Indians want recognition that they were treated badly, very badly, yet they don't want to be seen as "victims" to be pitied. One thing the book is bringing home to me is what variety there is among the individuals Frazier encounters. For every Le War Lance in the story, there is a Charlotte Black Elk (who engaged in some pretty technical scientific research to try to prove the Sioux have an ancient link to South Dakota's Black Hills). Each of the Sioux Frazier has encountered so far is unique. The big insult, I'm thinking, is not in showing the weaknesses of these individuals, but in lumping all of them together into a stereotype, even if that stereotype makes someone else out to be the bad guy. Does it honor the humanity of a person more to portray him/her as he/she really is, even if some of that reality is not too pretty?

I may think that, but I'm not so sure I'm carrying my philosophy through in my writing. Honestly, I'm intimidated by taking on the subject of Native Americans and their history. I surely don't want to bring down the wrath of the Cherokee Nation on myself for my speculation about what happened nearly 200 years ago. And I hope in my effort to avoid offending and to appease the guilt my forefathers laid on me that I'm not giving my protagonists attitudes that are far too 21st-century to be realistic for 19th-century folk. Sigh...As my title says, it's complicated.